Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Neglected Gems #3: Code 46 (2003)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Wendy and Lucy, Ballast) have acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

The highly prolific and inventive British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs, A Mighty Heart) displays his prodigious talents with another startlingly original movie, this time mining, quite successfully, the science fiction genre. Set in the near future, at a time when most of humanity is forced to live in designated zones, Code 46 begins with a dream sequence voiced by Maria (Samantha Morton), a Shanghai factory worker. It's a dream that ends with her arrival at a mysterious, unclear destination. Soon after, William (Tim Robbins), an ace intelligence expert outfitted with an empathy virus that gives him mind-reading powers, arrives to investigate her workplace. Someone there is illegally making and selling 'papelles,' a combination passport/visa that allow their holders to leave their designated areas, which they are otherwise forbidden to do. When William and Maria fall for each other, they are forced to confront their mundane, controlled existences and, possibly, take a chance on something better.

Unlike Minority Report (or the overblown world of The Matrix), Code 46, which was scripted by Frank Cottrell Boyce, eschews flashy special effects in favor of strong characterization and thoughtful extrapolation. What futuristic touches the film does possess are quietly, unobtrusively woven into the story, which renders them more effective than would otherwise be the case. Winterbottom's depiction of a dystopian, chillingly circumscribed future is utterly believable and logical and the dreamlike love story, graced with note-perfect performances by Robbins and Morton, is one of the most moving of the year. This is science fiction at its cinematic, provocative best.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute. On Tuesday June 14, he begins a three week lecture series on Key Filmmakers of Our Time, examining the career of Canadian multiple talent Don McKellar. The series, which takes place from 10-11:30 am at the Bernard Betel Centre (1003 Steeles Avenue West) will continue with lectures on Israel’s Eytan Fox (June 21) and France’s Claire Denis (June 28).

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